Some remarkable things happened Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium, site of the MSHSL soccer state championship games. In the Class 1A boys contest between Bemidji and Blake, the first remarkable thing took place in the opening second of the second overtime.
Blake sophomore James Keegan stood near midfield, on the eyeball of the Vikings logo. As a whistle blast from the official started the clock, Keegan took four quick steps toward the ball, which was motionless on the 50-yard line. In most cases, a game or the second half or an overtime period begins with a player gently nudging the ball from the midfield stripe to a teammate as an offensive attack begins forming.
Not this time. Keegan struck the ball perfectly. It sailed high, slowly losing its battle with the forces of gravity and arcing over the head of Bemidji senior goalkeeper Joe Fletcher. Final score: Top-seeded Bears 1, non-seeded Lumberjacks 0.
On the official statistical sheet, the play was described like this: “shot from kick off flew over the goalkeepers head and into the goal.” Time of the goal: Ninety minutes, four seconds.
The second remarkable thing happened in a much quieter spot, the Vikings postgame media room. With no more than four or five reporters present, Bemidji coach Rick Toward and players Ben Hess and Aspen Galdamez talked about the loss and the team and the season and the memories. It was golden.
“Obviously we’re very proud of what we accomplished this year,” the coach said. “Disappointed in the way the final game turned out, but we couldn’t be more proud to watch this team grow from where we were at the beginning of the season to a legitimate threat to basically anybody in the state.
“What can I say? Proud, proud, proud as a coach.”
If Minnesota geography isn’t your thing, you should know that the Lumberjacks do not hail from a metro school unless you consider Beltrami County a metropolitan area. Bemidji High School is a four-hour drive from U.S. Bank Stadium, and finding soccer opponents often means traveling two and a half hours one way. Blake, located in Hopkins, is 11 miles from the stadium.
“Living where we live, playing the schedule we play, we don’t get the opportunities that Blake would get,” Toward said. “It’s so hard for us to play quality, high-level opponents. So when we get the opportunity to go over to Duluth and play East, we’re playing one or two or three games like that a year. We have to balance burning our kids out with travel, late nights, with prepping them for this type of environment. That’s been a challenge for us geographically and I don’t know how to fix that.
“We’ve been fortunate that we have activity directors around the state who recognize that (he mentioned St. Cloud Cathedral, Moorhead and Duluth East). It’s very hard to get people to travel. We do as well as we can. But I think if we play the level of competition that you see Blake get to play all year long, we might have a different result today.”
This was Bemidji’s third consecutive trip to state and the first time the Lumberjacks advanced past the opening round. They defeated third-seeded Mahtomedi 1-0 in last week’s quarterfinals at St. Cloud State and got past second-seeded Holy Angels 3-1 Tuesday at U.S. Bank Stadium. So all they accomplished was beating the second and third seeds and taking the top seed to overtime before getting beat on a miracle shot.
“Five years ago we were saying we just want to get through the section,” Toward said. “Two years ago we were saying we want to get to the Bank.”
As soon as the ball sailed into the goal and the Bears began a delirious celebration, the Bemidji players went directly to their goalkeeper. Fletcher didn’t even play soccer until this season, and he had seen action in only a handful of games. He came onto the field Friday when starter Jedidiah Bitter was injured at the 69-minute mark.
“Immediately upon that goal going in, my kids went to the keeper. That was their number one concern,” the coach said. “They didn’t drop their heads, they didn’t feel sorry for themselves, they went to their teammate.”
Galdamez said, “It was obviously a really good shot, probably a once-in-a-lifetime shot for him. Joe had nothing to be ashamed of. It’s been a good season and I’m proud of what we accomplished.”
Hess added, “When someone scores from 60 yards out you’re kind of in shock. You don’t expect that to happen. But he hit it well. It was a really good season, I loved every second of it and Joe’s probably the best teammate I’ve ever had. He gives us pep talks before every game, he keeps us pumped on the bench, his first year out. I can’t say enough about him.”
And then there’s this fact, which Toward pointed out as the postgame media session wound down:
“We’ve never cut a kid. Every kid who comes out for soccer in Bemidji plays. So for me, that’s kind of a testament to what high school sports is supposed to be all about. I had a couple kids on the bench this year that didn’t get a ton of minutes but they got to enjoy the ride. We as a community are super proud of that. We are inclusive. We want everybody to have an opportunity.”State Soccer Semifinals and Championship Games
At U.S. Bank Stadium
Tuesday, Oct. 30
Class 2A girls: Minnetonka 1, Eagan 0 (4-3 shootout)
Class 2A girls: Wayzata 2, Stillwater 1 (7-6 shootout)
Class 1A girls: Mahtomed 2, Holy Angels 1
Class 1A girls: Orono 2, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 1
Class 1A boys: Blake 3, Austin 1
Class 1A boys: Bemidji 3, Holy Angels Wednesday, Oct. 31
Class 1A girls third-place game: Holy Angels 0, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 0
Class 1A boys third-place game: Austin 1, Holy Angels 0
Class 2A boys: Duluth East 2, Minnetonka 0
Class 2A boys: Stillwater 2, St. Paul Central 1
Class 2A girls third-place game: Eagan 4, Stillwater 2Friday, Nov. 2
Class 2A boys third-place game: Minnetonka 1, St. Paul Central 1
Class 1A girls championship game: Mahtomedi 1, Orono 0 (overtime)
Class 1A boys championship game: Blake 1, Bemidji 0 (overtime)
Class 2A girls championship game: Minnetonka 1, Wayzata 0
Class 2A boys championship game: Stillwater 2, Duluth East 1 (overtime)Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn